I beg to move,
That this House has considered dissident activity in Upper Bann.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. It is disappointing that I must focus today on dissident republican activity in my constituency. That said, I must take this opportunity at the outset to remind Members that Northern Ireland has come such a long way from the pain and dreadful history that our Province holds. We have made remarkable progress. We are making headlines—largely on a positive note—and now receiving global recognition for the right reasons.
However, there remains an element within our community that cannot look to the future. There are some who cannot and will not build on our strong foundation, which is delivering, and delivering well, for the people of Northern Ireland. It is that element that forced the security threat level in Northern Ireland to severe. It is that element that saw our Prime Minister, the then Home Secretary, deliver the news that an attack on the UK by dissident republicans was a strong possibility. It is that element that is continually undermining the great work that our political leaders in Northern Ireland are striving to achieve.
A town in my constituency is regularly brought to the fore, with reports of dissident activity. It has one of the highest threat levels, and we all need to be on our guard and highly vigilant. In 2009, my constituent, a serving police officer, responded to a 999 call. Constable Stephen Carroll attended without hesitation, in an attempt to fulfil his commitment as a police officer and his pledge to protect the wider public, but that call turned out to be an elaborate trap set up by dissidents who lay in hiding and fatally wounded him. I vividly recall attending Craigavon that evening, as the reports came through that the first officer of the Police Service of Northern Ireland had been shot. It is a night that I will never forget. I must commend the PSNI for its skilful and thorough investigation and for bringing those responsible before the justice system. Two men are currently serving life sentences for that brutal murder, but it does not erase the pain for Constable Carroll’s family.
My hon. Friend gives a very sombre recognition of the slaughter of an innocent police officer in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that one thing required in his constituency and all our constituencies is more police officers on the ground? We are about 800 short from what Patten recommended. We need the police to urgently recruit new members and the Northern Ireland Office to stump up the money for it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that we need communities to support the PSNI and all the investigations it is doing and to ensure that the evidence and information those communities have can be sent to the PSNI? The communities, together with the police and elected representatives, can then take on the dissident republicans and eradicate them totally from society in Northern Ireland.
I agree. Community support is important, and I will deal with that later on in my speech.
Our security personnel are on constant high alert. In my constituency, prison officer David Black was gunned down on the motorway as he travelled to work in 2012. That brutal ambush was carefully planned and carried out at the hands of skilled gunmen, who carefully targeted and shot him at high speed. Mr Black served Her Majesty’s Government in the Prison Service for more than 30 years and was awaiting the outcome of his retirement application. That is another mammoth loss, not only to his family but to Northern Ireland as a whole.
That is the distinct reality of the dissident republican activity we face today. They continue to generate support through illegal republican parades and protests. They are engaging with impressionable young men—a generation who have not fully witnessed the darkest days of the troubles. Having indoctrinated those teenagers, they send them out to engage in crimes, while maintaining a safe distance. In May this year, reports stated that a 10-year-old boy was cautioned after a masked colour party took part in a republican parade through Lurgan. It is extremely disturbing how young children are being exploited to try to progress a violent and brutal agenda.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that the cancer of paramilitarism must be eradicated from all quarters and that to do that once and for all there must be community support for the PSNI and also community involvement with it, working together with all community and political organisations?
I agree entirely. It is important that the communities co-operate and that information is fed into the security forces.
At the time of that parade, the PSNI was aware of possible illegal parades and made several announcements regarding such activity. It urged the public not to engage in any way and reminded everyone of the repercussions of doing so. However, its pleas to the public were ignored by some, and following that parade, the PSNI followed through with robust and thorough investigations. Last week, it reported that a total of 81 files had been forwarded to the Public Prosecution Service for consideration. I understand that 35 of those files were on residents of the Republic of Ireland. There is a widespread concern that when those files are passed to the PPS, the good work of the PSNI is undone. On occasions, the files that are passed to the PPS for prosecution do not come before the justice system. In cases where they do reach the judiciary, sentencing is often too lenient and therefore ineffective as a deterrent, especially to the said impressionable young men.
In August this year, following a number of co-ordinated policing operations, locally based police officers working in conjunction with specialists from crime operations branch recovered a fully constructed explosive device, firearms and components for other improvised explosive devices in a number of searches in the area. Just a month later, in September, the PSNI uncovered an armour-piercing direct-fire mortar. Along with that find, three men were charged with targeting a former member of the security forces, and a fourth man was charged with attempting to kill police officers. We have recently seen the use of that type of weapon not only in my constituency but in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
In my constituency of Upper Bann, more firearms and ammunition have been recovered this year than in 2015; more people have been charged with terrorism-related offences this year than in 2015; and more explosives, including the vicious mortar, have been seized this year than last year. I want to put on record my admiration for the district commander, the chief inspectors and all the police officers on the ground for their resilience in working under these difficult and very dangerous circumstances.
The team of PSNI officers come under regular attacks in my constituency. Earlier this year, officers were on the receiving end of orchestrated, intense and prolonged violence when more than 100 petrol bombs were thrown and shots were fired at them during serious disorder in the local town in relation to the railway line. That railway line is famous in my constituency. It runs through a high-profile area of dissident activity and is the main thoroughfare from Belfast to Dublin, with trains approximately every 30 to 45 minutes. There have been numerous security alerts on the line, with more than 90 closures. This year, that has been somewhat reduced because of Translink’s work and that of the security forces. We all know that this is an attempt to lure police officers and forces of the Crown into the area so they can be attacked and their lives taken.
Such activity is simply not what the vast majority of my constituents want. They are trying to get on with their daily lives, but it is a stark reminder of how dissident republicans are holding the wider community back from enjoying the freedom and prosperity that Northern Ireland has to offer. I have met collectively the PSNI and Translink to discuss the impact that such closures on the line have on travellers on the railway and we are making steady progress.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time. Does he agree that the interruptions to the Belfast to Dublin service add to the problems for Translink, which has received a lot of criticism from many travellers as a result of undue delays in travelling to Belfast or Dublin, which is having an impact on the local economy?
Indeed. That is my next point. Shoppers, travellers and people going to work are affected, and not all employers are as sympathetic as they perhaps should be in the circumstances when people may have to use buses for transport. It is a disaster from start to finish. It is unacceptable and affects the economy greatly.
The PSNI has received cross-community support—there is no doubt about that—for stamping out dissident activity where possible. With limited resources, it is delivering a high-profile response to tackling these criminals, but we cannot ignore the fact that they are maintaining a presence and continuing to build on their support network. In recent meetings with the PSNI it has said it is greatly concerned about that.
The dissidents have a strong recruiting process, including vulnerable teenagers, and even those who were involved in provisional activity are coming back to help to build devices. Not all have been built correctly. One day, God forbid, they may get lucky and take the life of a police officer, but we hope and trust that will not happen.
That is correct. One concern of the security forces is that the dissidents may not have the capacity for a full-blown terrorist campaign, but they only need to be there and to carry out attacks once a month or every three or six months because the security forces must remain on high alert. The cost to the economy is phenomenal and we must be vigilant about that. The security forces are very aware of that, as are the Northern Ireland Office and the Executive, but unfortunately the dissidents are there and the security forces must deal with them. In recent days, parts of the group have formed a new political party with a leading character in the area—the Minister will know who I am referring to. He is so blatant, sitting in the middle of a room proposing to organise a political party when he is responsible for many dissident activities. He is like Teflon-man: nothing sticks to him. It is unfortunate that he seems to get away with it.
What more can be done? We know that the judiciary is impartial, but can anything be done to exert pressure to ensure that the necessary sentencing is handed down? If money is an issue, will the Northern Ireland Office consider helping to provide more assistance so that we can stop dissident republican activity and bring some normality to my constituents’ lives?
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) on securing this important debate. It is important to reiterate the continuing threat in his community and other parts of Northern Ireland and to ensure that we articulate, as the hon. Gentleman did, the fact that, although there has been a huge transition in recent years, a small number of individuals continue the horror of the troubles. I will refer later to some of the hon. Gentleman’s comments.
I want to speak briefly about the wider dissident republican threat before turning to the specific points raised by the hon. Gentleman. It is important to say at the outset that through the hard work and sacrifice of many brave people, there have been great strides forward in the security situation since the troubles. However, as the hon. Gentleman so clearly articulated, we continue to face a threat from dissident republicans. Dissident republicans are relatively small, disparate and factional groupings, but they are also reckless and determined, and they have lethal intent. In Northern Ireland this year, they have been responsible for five deaths and since 2010, when policing and justice were devolved, there have been 199 national security attacks in Northern Ireland. Although the threat is severe, most people across Northern Ireland are not directly affected by it. Terrorists target their efforts against the brave police, prison and military personnel who work to keep all our communities safe. We owe these public servants a tremendous debt of gratitude for their work day in, day out across Northern Ireland. We always say that in debates such as this, but we must keep reiterating it because they are the people who look after every part of our community. They are immensely brave. I have the privilege of working with them every day, and I will continue to sing their praises.
An unacceptable burden falls on people and communities who are affected because terrorists seek them out to cause them harm, because they have the misfortune to be caught up in security incidents or because they happen to live in areas where dissident republicans operate. We have all heard about the terrible injuries and deaths caused by terrorists, but even where there are no injuries, the terrorists attempt to control and disrupt the lives of many people. Often frail, elderly people or young people must be evacuated on cold nights, people have to move out of their homes or miss hospital appointments and businesses may be impacted on because a small number of disaffected individuals target their own communities to achieve their bizarre aims.
For these reasons and so many others, those who seek the path of violent republicanism cannot secure broad support. They offer nothing to the vast majority of people who want peace and good fortune for themselves and their children. The good people of Northern Ireland have a right to live in peace. They do not want the violence, intimidation and control that those terrorist groups try to impose.
I agree with what the Minister is saying in response to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), whom I congratulate on securing the debate. Does the Minister agree that in an area such as north Belfast, which has seen a lot of dissident terrorist activity, one problem that people face and express concerns about is open displays of dissident paramilitary activity, whether it be through parades, murals or other activity? They want to see the police and security forces trying to put a stop to that, because it is designed to intimidate, to stake out territory and to create prominence in the media.
I recognise the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes and I support him in encouraging our police to try to bring an end to that activity. He also makes the point that many people have made, about the community articulating what they want and demonstrating that they do not want to kow-tow or capitulate to a small group of thugs who want to influence the progress being made in Northern Ireland. Both the police and our security services play an important role in identifying and pursuing dissident republicans and disrupting and suppressing their activity. We want to keep that pressure on.
I want to comment on some of the points made by my hon. Friend—I will call him that—the Member for Upper Bann. We say many things in these debates, but to go back to the police and the other people on the front line, nothing demonstrates more clearly the immense contribution that people have made than someone making the ultimate sacrifice. I am thinking of individuals out there who have actually been targeted by these people. The hon. Member for Upper Bann referred to Stephen Carroll and David Black—two people who were brutally murdered by these individuals. Of course, they are not the only people who have been targeted. There have been many other attacks, and the attacks continue.
Yes. We need to do everything we can, and I know that police colleagues are doing that as well. The constant dialogue that we have, not only with other MPs but through agencies and councils, through different people, ensures that we have an understanding of the threat on the ground.
I want to offer my condolences in this arena to the families of the two people I mentioned and the other people who have been killed or had their lives disrupted. I also want to refer to the comments made by Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr. He said:
“I would ask all those with any influence in the community to use that influence to persuade people not to get involved in this type of activity. People who get involved, particularly young people, face the prospect of significant, possibly life changing, consequences.”
That is really important. It reiterates the point made by several hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for South Down (Ms Ritchie), that we all have a responsibility.
The point that the Minister makes is one of confidence in the Assistant Chief Constable wishing to demonstrate that pursuing a path of paramilitarism will always be negative and dangerous. Will the Minister reflect on how frustrating it is that, following the murder of Adrian Ismay in my constituency, the man who has been charged with his murder—Christopher Robinson— breached his bail conditions no fewer than five times, yet was still free and still is free to walk the streets? How can we encourage the community to stand against such activity when the system is not working with them?
I will not comment on the specific case, but I will touch on the broader issue of justice. Before I do, however, I want to refer to the point made by the hon. Member for Upper Bann about a 10-year-old child being targeted. I am thinking about my own constituency and the fears about the drug-dealing scum in my town who use innocent young people, because they are cowards. They franchise out that activity to someone else—to an innocent. I would say to parents, to families, out there: be extremely vigilant. These people are not bringing someone into a cause but exploiting innocent young people, and we must do everything we can to protect them.
I know that the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) will agree with me about this. There is supposed to be a direct correlation between those people who are actively involved in these activities, and drug activities. Both are equally insidious and both are a cancer in society that must be eradicated.
The hon. Lady makes a very good point, with which I agree.
I will briefly move on to the justice system. Justice is a devolved matter, and we treasure the independence of the judiciary, but I will make some observations. First, a review of the system is going on, but, as a citizen, I have observations on some of the choices that have been made, such as individuals being allowed to go to pop concerts. This is about confidence. I want a system that is independent, but it also has to be fit for purpose and reflect the demands of our broad public, who have made an immense journey. When we ask people to step away from paramilitarism and have faith and confidence in a system, whether it is the police or the broader judicial system, the system must be able to sentence; it must be able to process these things. I say this for people who are charged as well. I want them to have a good system that enables them to enter the process, understand and participate in it, and have their day in court. At the moment, I think there are huge question marks over its ability to deliver that. I know that the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland is doing everything she can to deliver it. I implore my friends across Northern Ireland to make a positive contribution in seeking change in that process.
I want finally to mention what we are doing. On a personal level, I feel so honoured to serve as a Northern Ireland Minister in a Northern Ireland that is in a far better place. It is an exciting place to be. We talk about the terrible things that we have talked about today, but when the chief executive of Belfast City Council tells me that 82 cruise ships have docked in Belfast, when the city tour bus is going around Stormont and when we have thousands of tourists coming to so beautiful a place as Northern Ireland, we need to ensure that we have some balance. A small group of individuals are seeking to go back to the past, but I believe that the vast majority of good people desire to be in a different place.
From a resource point of view, we have put an extra £160 million in this year, and we have put £25 million into addressing paramilitarism. I say to colleagues in the House today and to other friends in Northern Ireland that if I can change things or help them on the path to greater prosperity and greater peace, I will do everything I can.
Question put and agreed to.